The cost of college has become a prominent issue in the presidential campaign as tuitions increase, student debt inflates, and candidates attempt to appeal to a growing generation of younger voters. Though candidates and policymakers disagree on the specifics, providing free tuition for community colleges has emerged as one popular policy prescription. Recently, two of California’s candidates for US Senate – Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez—voiced support for this idea.
Last year, President Obama proposed legislation entitled America’s College Promise, which would have provided federal funding to states to make two years of community college free to academically eligible, first-time students. However, Congress blocked this program, citing the $79.7 billion price tag. Additionally, the program drew criticism from a range of stakeholders.
Many suggested that providing free tuition would do very little to help with the full cost of college. In California, only about 10% of the total cost of attending community college is related to tuition and fees because state subsidies and tuition waivers cover most of these costs. Instead, the state’s high cost of living, most notably in housing, constitutes the largest financial burden for community college students.
The most recent iteration of the program has sought to address this criticism. The president’s 2016 proposed budget includes a request for $1.6 billion as part of a 10-year, $60.3 billion program that would create a partnership with states to make a maximum of three years of community college free for eligible students. The federal government would cover three-quarters of the program’s cost and states would cover the rest. Participating states must meet certain performance requirements regarding student outcomes and state funding increases for higher education. And to avoid spending on those who can more easily afford community college, students must have an adjusted gross income below $200,000.
These changes in the program benefit states with low tuition. States will receive a payment for each eligible student equal to 75% of the national average of community college tuition. If a state’s tuition is below the national average—as California’s is—the additional funding may be used for other higher education purposes. Given that California’s tuition is low but its living expenses are high, this provision would allow the state to direct the extra funding—about $1,000 per eligible student—toward low-income students to help pay for books, transportation, housing, food, and other necessities. This extra funding could help low-income students in community colleges and at public four-year colleges afford the true cost of attending college.
In response to the proposed federal program, the state legislature has introduced a suite of bills known as the California College Promise. These bills would eliminate community college tuition and direct new funding to expand eligibility for the community college fee waiver program, increase funding for the Cal Grant program, and help community colleges establish regional coordination efforts with K-12 feeder schools and public four-year colleges and universities.
Even if federal funding for a long term program like America’s College Promise is unlikely to materialize in a presidential election year, the fact remains that reducing the cost of college has become a prominent issue. Proposals to provide free community college have clearly resonated with a broad coalition of voters, policymakers, and advocacy groups. As congressional debate continues regarding reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which approves spending on federal financial aid programs, we can expect the conversation surrounding college affordability and access to intensify.